Women of the Silent Film Era: Lillian Gish

Updated: Mar 1

By Sherri Rabinowitz:

I’ve always had a fascination with movies and the early days of cinema. Over the next few months, I’ll be writing about Women of the Silent Film Era and their powerful influence over the medium during the years between 1902 and 1929, before the “talkies” took over.


My first interest in women of the Silent Film era came from an interview I saw with the late, great Lillian Gish, where she talked about how she did everything on a film’s production. Not only did she act and do her own stunts, she directed, wrote scripts, and even worked behind the camera. When I read that Mary Pickford had said pretty much the same thing, my interest intensified.

The early days of cinema were experimental, prolific, and in the most primitive stages were considered anything but art. These were the days of the “photographic revolver,” “Zoetrope,” and the “Whirligig of Life." But as these films became popular and developed more of an audience, the medium became an exciting field full of innovators and experimenters. Film production was open to everyone—not just men but women and minorities as well.


A quick countdown to modern cinema:


  • The magic lantern—probably created by Christiaan Huygens in the 1650s.

  • The photographic sequence shot by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887 with his chronophotographic works regarded as a proper way to replay the material in motion.

  • By the end of the 1880s, the introduction of lengths of celluloid photographic film and the invention of motion picture cameras that could photograph an indefinitely long rapid sequence of images using only one lens. This allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film.


Just as film traveled a slow, winding road so did the women who worked within field. A hundred years ago, the highest-salaried director in motion pictures just so happened to be a woman: Lois Weber—the highest-paid director in town.

Lois Weber

At that time, more women worked at all levels inside the Hollywood film industry than in the decades that followed. Between 1912 and 1919, Universal Studios’ roster of eleven women directors made a total of 170 films.


Production moved quickly in those days to ensure that the films they made would make it into the theaters within a month’s time. "Shooting on the lot" meant that production took over an empty lot to make a movie. The actors did their own stunts; they helped with costumes, lightning, and sometimes operated the camera. In this rough-and-tumble Hollywood, women worked in all aspects of moviemaking—directing, screenwriting, film editing, costume design, producing, camera operating, and stunts. They also owned the theaters where the films were shown. Women and men worked alongside each other, forging a new industry in real time.


The most well-respected and well-paid women during the era were Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, Jeanie Macpherson, Anita Loos, June Mathis, Bess Meredyth, and of course, Lois Weber.


Their achievements are inspiring, yet the hard facts are disheartening regarding the overall history of women in cinema. The current film industry climate and the struggle for female representation behind the camera, as well as the salary discrepancies and representation of women in front of the camera, show just how the business of filmmaking has not been kind to women in the profession. It is maddening to note that these early female film pioneers have been relegated to the footnotes of film history or left entirely out of the narrative altogether.


LILLIAN GISH was one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era; she was an American pioneer of the screen and stage. She was a director and writer—her film career spanned 75 years, from 1912–1987. Gish was called "The First Lady of American Cinema" and is credited with pioneering fundamental film performance techniques that were used throughout the industry.


She was born in Springfield, the oldest child of Mary Robinson McConnell, an actress, and James Leigh Gish. Lillian’s younger sister, Dorothy, also became a popular movie star. A sister act, they were known as the Gish Sisters, performers of stage and screen, their beauty and talent rivaling similar acts such as the Dolly Sisters.

Gish was a prominent film star from 1912 into the 1920s, starring in one of the most controversial and disturbing films ever made: The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film was directed by D. W. Griffith, a great booster of Gish’s talent, always encouraging her to write, direct, and spread her wings.


Once the era of the "talkies" began, Gish returned to the stage and appeared infrequently in film, with well-known roles in the controversial western Duel in the Sun (1946) and the offbeat thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955).

In the early 1950s into the 1980s, Gish did considerable television work and closed her career playing opposite Bette Davis in the 1987 film The Whales of August, her onscreen presence sparkling as always, even in her later years. For the rest of her life, Gish became a dedicated advocate for the appreciation and preservation of silent film. Despite being better known for her film work, she was also an accomplished stage actress and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972.


Next time in Women of the Silent Film Era, we take a look at the powerhouse career of Mary Pickford.

Inspired by Ray Bradbury and Agatha Christie, Sherri Rabinowitz has been writing since she was a small child. She has always loved writing but has made a living as an actress, travel agent and in several forms of customer service. However, her passion has always been reading and writing fan fiction. Her book, Different is Beautiful won Gold in the The Global Ebook Awards.

Sherri's book are available on Amazon.com

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